Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Life Directions

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | August 18, 2011 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: introspection, life directions, new directions

This_way_that_way.jpgThis is my week for introspection, it seems. At the Kindred Spirits spiritual gathering that I attended last week, one of the questions I brought to the retreat was "what direction do I want to take my life in now?"

Every morning at around 6 am, I get up and read my personalized Google news with my morning coffee, which is heavy on the LGBT content, to try to find the Quote of the Day, which has to go up on the blog by 7:30 a.m. Next, I come up with something to post on. I'm looking for something that resonates with me, as well as something timely, significant, and likely to provoke interest and discussion among readers. Since I'm a slow writer, it usually takes hours, finishing up around 11.

I never intended to become a blogger, when I started my own blog, Transgender Workplace Diversity, in 2004. It just seemed a good way to get my academic research on that subject to people in the workplace who needed it. Nor did I intend to become a major part of Bilerico, but it seemed a good way to channel my concerns about ENDA and its political viability, which led me to posting every day on the subject for a year until it fell apart, and then by then Bilerico's readers had wormed their way into my heart. The site says I've written 550 entries since September 2008.

But primarily, I'm an academic. Of course, I teach courses and serve on college committees -- that's a given. But what got me into the game was my love of research. Where else do you get paid a living wage to research and write 50 page-long, thoughtful articles? My area of research is transgender workplace law and policy, and I write academic articles for publication in scholarly journals and books. I've written a lot of those, and I love doing it. Technical analysis of legal doctrine and social data is what I thrive on. In the past, part of my drive was ascending the professorial ladder, but I've reached the top of the ladder at my college: tenure and then full professorship. My production has slowed a bit because I have so many irons in the fire. And after all, while it's important to produce research for use in litigation and policy work, relatively few people see those, though they can make a big difference in the right hands at the right time. But the ability to influence politics and culture through Bilerico reaches so many more people, and cultural understanding may, in the long run, be more important than any individual technical analysis of legal doctrines. So Bilerico is definitely something I love. A few less technical articles that few people will read is okay.

But writing about LGBT politics and culture isn't enough for me. I want to use my knowledge to make a difference in the lives of my community. I provide consulting services to employers addressing gender transition in the workplace. That's cool, but it's not much of a business. The work is occasional, maybe a couple times a year for a day here and a day there. I love doing it, because it makes a huge difference for the people involved, but it's not enough to keep my mind occupied. Of course, I could advertise and market and all that stuff, but I have no desire to do that. That's okay, because I have a dozen other plates spinning.

I got involved as Board Chair of GetEqual, the direct action group, after the Dems pushed ENDA off a cliff to its death at the Reichenbach Falls like Sherlock Holmes, leaving me angry that millions of LGBT people in the country are left subject to the whims of homophobic or clueless employers. ENDA may reappear, like Sherlock Holmes did after his fall and presumed death, but it's going to be some years while ENDA takes up beekeeping in the Swiss Alps. I'm glad to be able to bring my skills to GetEqual, but I'm not good at staying angry for a long time, and I've found that running a board of directors, while important and useful, is perhaps not my most favorite role.

There are a number of other organizations that are also doing important work, and I'm serving as a volunteer for the Ali Forney Center for homeless youth, and considering doing some work with the Point Foundation that gives college scholarships to LGBT students, which is dear to my heart, and IGLHRC, which works on LGBT rights internationally and has consultative status at the U.N., which is important because I've done some research and writing on international trans issues and feel it's important not to have solely a U.S. focus because there are millions of LGBT people out there who are suffering under far more horrible repression then we can even contemplate in the U.S.

But right here in the U.S. we have plenty of oppression, and I have a couple of legal cases where people were discriminated against at their jobs, which I've taken on a pro bono basis. That doesn't take a lot of work all at once. Litigation is usually a slow process, with very occasional spurts of intense activity. If there were other lawyers out there to help them, I would have directed them there, but there's really very few who understand these issues well and are willing to help.

I'm also chair of the planning committee for the Trans Law Institute, held at the National LGBT Bar Association Conference. No one else wanted to fill the role. There's a bunch of other committee members, but I suppose someone has to chair it. I mean, how could we not have this? In September will be our second year doing this.

And then there's the law students around the country I'm mentoring, who have become good friends. That takes time and thought. Oh, and my book on transgender workplace diversity, which has become popular among HR people, needs updating since I wrote it in 2007. Was that four years ago? My gosh, time flies. Oh, and I'm working on the preliminary stages of writing a law student's textbook on transgender law with a law professor friend. I'm involved in local politics (some important issues here - protesters harassing women at the local abortion clinic, the Republican Congresswoman who took over the district, GENDA).

Perhaps I shouldn't have taken on being Convenor of the Law and Society major at school (that's what we call our department chairs, sort of) or being Faculty Assembly Vice-President, but hey, it needed to be done. (Others will be taking those over soon enough, I hope.) And the new house needs lots of work, and I can't afford to hire people to do stuff that I can do myself. I just finished painting the upstairs. The driveway needs a ditch to divert the water. Though I will have someone else do the roofing -- saw my first leak and it's time. And it's also important to make time for friends and family. Oh, and I sing in the synagogue chorus; we practice every Wednesday night.

And of course, there are requests to speak at conferences, to help journalists writing stories on trans issues, and emails from people needing help with discrimination -- about 200 emails a day.

I suppose if I were a different sort of person, I could just say "NO" to a lot of these things, and they would go away. But I've always wanted to do everything. But of course, you can't, not really, not forever. And so I will have to pick and choose soon.

What would you recommend I focus on, and what would you recommend I dump? Bilerico? Academic research? Writing a book? Community organizations? Volunteer work? Consulting with companies? Representing legal clients? Mentoring students? College committees? Politics? Email? Sleeping?


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Dr. Weiss, you have a remarkable talent for taking the complex and jargon laden legal issues facing our communities and making them accessible to lay readers. Your writing brings clarity to trans political and legal issues in a way that few others are able to. For those of us who are not trans, but are politically active, it gives us a solid foundation in what the legal and political battles are about. That builds alliances.

I look forward to your posts and I hope that you will continue on here or in other media to use that talent.

Dear Dr. Weiss,

I wouldn't ordinarily presume to tell anyone what their priorities should be, but since you asked, I'll give it a go.

I think you should take care of your health, first.

Beyond that, if there is any part of your work that affects transgender children, I would hope you would concentrate your efforts there. If no part of your work is directly involved with transgender kids, then I would hope you would concentrate on working to create a legal and social environment favorable to transgender people, so that today's transgender kids can have the same chance at a fulfilling future that non-transgender kids have.

I don't want today's transgender kids to go through reparative therapy, like I went through. No near starvation from employment discrimination. No two decades-long verbal combat with and estrangement from my family. And so on. They should have a chance at a life. If we don't make that happen for them, no one else will.


That should say, "involuntary reparative therapy".

Eva, I'm so sorry to hear about what you went through. Yes, kids and employment are definitely high on my list. When I think of how much I love my son, who's now 19, and how I chafed, particularly when he was young, at the thought of anyone treating him badly, I feel the same way towards all the children out there who are enduring all sorts of awful treatment.

I guess the question is how to most effectively use my efforts to secure these ends. Is writing an academic article better than writing a series of blog posts? Is taking on a pro bono trans client who's been discriminated against and harassed at work better than running the annual Transgender Law Institute?

Justus Eisfeld Justus Eisfeld | August 19, 2011 1:56 PM

Jillian, the one luxury we have in this young trans* movement is that there is way more work to go around than we can accomplish with the few people that we have, which means YOU get to pick what you like to do most! With your capacities and insight, pretty much anything you do will make a tremendous difference! Once you realize that this is a luxury you can then freely chose from a combination of items:
- those that pay the rent
- those that you enjoy doing most
- those that relax you and bring some balance into your life
- the amount of work that you can and want to do without taking a toll on you as a person
So, there you go:
Does the work that you do for pay offer enough to warrant your presence there? If yes, continue doing it. If no, try to find a better solution that works for you.
Does the extra work that you do at your day-job have a pay-off for you? Will it bring you into a better position for your current or next job (and are you seeking that better position at all)? If not, take a step back and practice to say no. :-)
What brings balance and relaxation into your life? It sounds like you enjoy your choir and it also sounds like it has not much to do with the rest of the work that you do. You should keep that - everybody needs a place where we can just be us, rather than the important activist.
It helps me to find a few things to focus on: a certain theme that I want to develop or a certain goal. That way it becomes easier to say no to the opportunities (and they will come up) that do not fit into that goal. We are a young movement, and horribly understaffed. I work best on issues or things that I really like and enjoy doing, so if you get more joy out of writing an article on Bilerico than representing a client pro bono, that is what you should be working on. There are never enough of us around to do all the work, which can be very frustrating. But you have to let go of that thought and focus on what you can do, and what you can do for a long time. After all, as a movement, we'll get more out of your talent if you work 10 years on a 40-hour-per-week schedule than 3 years on a 80-hour-per-week schedule. :-)

Britney Austin | August 22, 2011 2:46 AM

Very interesting. To answer the question you posed, all I can say is follow your heart. If you enjoy doing something and it benefits you and/or others go for it. Unfortunately time is often everyone's worst enemy because there rarely is enough time for people to truly do everything they want to do. But if you love what you do, though, keep doing it. Thanks again for all of your service to the community.